“When I’m older, I’m gonna let my kids do whatever they want! Parents are so annoying!” This is a direct quote from my childhood. A recurring quote. My closing remarks to almost every argument I had with my parents. Then I walked away, my angry face wincing in frustration. I made sure to walk away at an angle that allowed my parents to see the disapproval emanating from the corners of my cheeks as I made my exit.
The frustration of feeling misunderstood is one that we can relate to no matter our stage of life. It is usually accompanied by resentment, infuriation, and disappointment in the perpetrator. Almost universally, children believe parents don’t understand their struggle. From their perspective, adults live the life. We can go to the bathroom without asking permission and have a snack at our desks even during work time. We go to recess whenever we want, and have unfettered access to the bottomless credit card. We have no bedtime, no screen time limits, and can eat junk food before dinner. We drive a superpowered go-kart to work, where we get to sit at a computer all day! No one makes us write apology letters or tells us to make our beds. We certainly don’t have to chew with our mouths closed.
We cannot expect to be patient parents without relating to this imagery. So often we encounter circumstances with our children that are overwhelmingly frustrating. In these moments, awareness of the child’s perspective is what pulls us through.
We need to enter the child’s world to parent, teach, educate, and guide him appropriately. We need to remember what it was like as a child to feel the contempt of others when our needs were inconvenient. We need to remember the confidence in our opinions, and the bewilderment when others disagreed. We need to remember how it felt to know that classmates found us irritating. We need to remember trying to get our parents’ attention, yet feeling ignored because others had their concentration. We must remember the pain of coming second to an electronic device.
We need to remember the sinking feeling in our hearts when looked down on with disapproval. We must never forget the loneliness that accompanied first days at school, being picked up last from play group, and long nights scared of the dark.
We must recall the isolation of feeling picked on by classmates, siblings, and even teachers. Most importantly, we must think back to the anguish at the times when our parents’ words were the ones that cut deep, laying waste to our self-esteem.
Simply put: We need to remember what it’s like to be a kid. We need to remember the innocence, the vulnerability, and the dependence of childhood.
How do we do this? With all of life’s distractions, how do we have the wherewithal to travel so far back in time and remember what our children are experiencing?
The best solution is to ask them. Give them an opportunity to invite you into their world - and then listen. Listen carefully. Ask questions that show you are interested. Be interested. Hear their feelings, empathize with their experience, and help them feel safe to share.
You may be wondering what to do if you’ve tried this already. “Every day I ask my son “How was your day?” His response: “Good.” I don’t understand why all he gives me is a one-word answer.” This is a common difficulty parents experience.
The answer is frequently quite simple: We ask with an agenda. Contained within “How was your day” is a slew of second- and third-level questions that children understandably don’t want to expose.
“How was your day? Did anyone bother you? Do I have to call anyone’s mother? Are you up to date with your work? Do you have any homework? Did you have any negative feelings today? Can I teach you how to avoid having that bad feeling with ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones…’? Are you improving socially? Maybe you want to have a friend over?”
Children don’t want to be helped all the time. They pine for our attention and validation, but we offer something that looks similar, smells similar, but tastes significantly different.
To circumvent this concern, it behooves us to weed out our agenda and inquire about their life for no reason other than to connect - to understand your precious child at his core, and explore how he feels so that you can experience it together with him. Watch how your relationship develops, and witness the exponential growth of your child’s emotional expression.
The transition will not happen overnight. Children will explore this new behavior pattern to see if they can trust it. They may continue to brush you off for another couple of weeks until they feel secure in their perception of the feedback loop. Perseverance will be necessary, conviction is vital, and as I will repeat time and again, composure is a must. Composure is the ingredient that subtly maintains an appropriate power hierarchy in a parent-child relationship. It exudes strength, safety, warmth, and wisdom.
We may worry that we can’t relate to our children anymore, but not so long ago we were children too. Believe that you can connect with your child. After all - it takes one to know one.